A 3-Step Process for Reading the Bible – Q&A with Orpheus J. Heyward
*Editor’s Note: Reading the Bible can be daunting. It helps to have steps in mind which help make the process of Bible reading understandable. I recently caught up with Dr. Orpheus J. Heyward, a minister, scholar, and teacher of Bible interpretation (hermeneutics) to get his thoughts on how we can bridge the gap between the world of the Bible and our own world. Other articles in this series deal with the dangers of misinterpretation, the importance of context, the tools of interpretation we already use everyday, and questions with which we should come to the Bible.
Q: Three steps which are often used to describe how we should read the Bible are observation, interpretation, and application. Could you take a text of Scripture and walk us through how you would use those three steps? How do you observe a text?
Sure. Let’s say I’m reading the book of Ephesians and I run across Ephesians 1:3-4. It says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.”
Let’s say that I read that verse and I really want to understand it. Well, the first thing I want to do in my observation is I want to know: what does it say? In other words, I want to become familiar with the wording of the text.
So, to observe the text, I’d take the time to read that passage in more than one translation. I probably will read it in about three or four different translations because I want to understand the flow of the text. Let’s say the New American Standard, the English Standard Version, and the New Living Translation. These are three translations that would give me a good feel of what the text says.
Then I want to move to observing the context. I want to read it, not only the passages that I’ve read, but I want to do the best I can to see if I can get a better sense of what he is saying in the whole chapter (Ephesians 1). In the best-case scenario, I try to get a sense of what he is saying in the whole book (of Ephesians). As I read, I ask, What is the author really saying to this audience? What is he emphasizing? What problem is he addressing?
When I have a good feel of what he is saying, then I’m going to move onto observing the historical context. I’ll probably check a Bible encyclopedia, maybe a Bible handbook. I’m going to read this secondhand material to help get a good feel for the historical and cultural context: When was it written? Who’s the author? Who are the recipients? What’s the occasion of the document? What are the major themes of the document? Is there anything cultural in this passage that I don’t get? Yet, let me emphasize that before I move onto this secondhand material, most of what I would observe with be the text itself. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about the author, the recipient, the context, etc. just by reading the text.
Q: After observation, how do you interpret a text?
Maybe there’s something said in the text that I’m not quite familiar with. So, I then move into interpretation. Are there any words in that passage that I don’t understand? I want to know, for example, what does Paul mean by “Blessed be God”? What does the word blessed mean? I need to look that up to make sure I’m clear about it.
Is blessed a verb? Is this something I’m doing in the text or is this something else? Many people would find it interesting that the word blessed that Ephesians 1:3 says in “Blessed be God,” is not even a verb. It’s an adjective. Blessed is descriptive of God. That would be the same as saying, “God is blessed.” It’s a word that indicates the inherent praiseworthiness of God.
So that’s me looking up a word. I don’t want to assume I know what blessed means, so I’ll look it up. That’s what we do in English too if we don’t know what a word means.
Paul goes on to say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.” What does spiritual mean? People have a whole lot of different definitions of what is spiritual, so I need to look up that word so that I’m clear about it. Then Paul says, “In the heavenly places in Christ.” “Heavenly places” is a phrase, but it’s really just one Greek word, which translates into “heavenlies.” What does “heavenlies” mean?
So, I was observing the text, but now I’m interpreting the text. I’m asking what the text means. Once I’ve observed the text and know my context, I want to start asking, Do I understand what the author means here? What is he saying? What is he communicating in light of the historical context? In light of the themes of the book? In light of what he’s saying to the recipients? What do I think he’s trying to communicate in this passage?
Q: And in order for us to move onto obedience, we explore application. What does application look like?
Then I move to the third step. Now that I know what he’s saying to them, I can ask, What is he saying to me? I don’t want to jump to what he’s saying to me, unless I first know what he’s saying to them.
So, first I need to know what Paul is trying to communicate to his audience to help give them better insight into whatever his subject matter is. What are the possible applications he wants them to do? Before I start applying it to me, how were his original recipients meant to apply this text? What were they supposed to do with this information?
I want to look for what’s called “corresponding application.” Corresponding application means to take whatever they were to do with this text and ask, What do I have in common with them? What do they have in common with me? This is finding a corresponding situation at which to understand how that passage should be applied in my life.
What I don’t want to do is try to apply it in a very foreign way. So, I want to know what we have in common with each other. Why is Paul giving them this information? What does he want them to do with this information? And then I can now ask, How does this apply to my context?
So, that’s a basic way to explain how we go from observation to interpretation and into application. That’s a framework of what you can do. Of course, we’re trying to fit a seminary course into a few minutes, but that would be a basic way that I would go through those three steps.
You’d be surprised how much you can learn about the author, the recipient, the context, etc. just by reading the text.